Health Issue: Asthma

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a condition that affects the airways-the small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. Children with asthma have airways that are extra sensitive and react to substances (or ‘triggers’) which irritate them.

What happens to their airways?

When the airways come into contact with an asthma trigger, the muscle around the walls of the airways tightens so that the airways become narrower. The lining of the airways swell and produces sticky mucus. As the airways narrow it becomes difficult for the air to move in and out. That is why your child will find breathing difficult and you might hear a wheezing noise.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

The typical symptoms of asthma in young children are:

  • Coughing, particularly at night and after exercise.
  • Wheezing or a whistling noise in the chest.
  • Getting short of breath - perhaps your child is not running around as much as usual, or needs to be carried more.

What causes Asthma?

No one knows exactly what causes asthma but we do know that the tendency to develop allergies, including asthma, often runs in families.

How do I know that my child has asthma?

A definitive diagnosis of asthma can be difficult to obtain in young children.

  • At least one child in five will have 'wheezing' at some point during their early years. Many of these children will not go on to have asthma in later childhood, so your doctor may not want to use the term 'asthma' at this stage.
  • It is not easy to measure how well a young child's lungs are working. A peak flow meter is used for older children, but is unsuitable for children under the age of six.

The pattern of symptoms that develops over time shows whether a child has asthma or not. Your doctor may ask you to keep a record of your child's symptoms and when they happen. This will help the doctor get to the bottom of your child's breathing problems.

If your child is under the age of two, it is even more difficult to tell if they have asthma. There are a number of different wheezing illnesses, including acute bronchiolitis, 'wheezy bronchitis', as well as asthma, which can make your baby wheezy. Also, some children wheeze after a chest infection such as bronchiolitis. However, they are quite well and require no treatment, and are known as 'Happy Wheezers'!

The Asthma Society of Ireland operates a help line where you can get confidential advice and support from an Asthma Nurse Specialist, you can contact the nurse Tues – Thurs from 10am to 1pm on 1850 44 54 64. For more information on asthma and to see our range of booklets please visit our website

First published 4kids Winter 2008